A Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, who gives us new birth. Amen.
Evening has fallen over Jerusalem, and the cool air of the spring night is settling in. The city is packed to overflowing for Passover feast, and this metropolis is in even more of an uproar after a wandering preacher from Nazareth entered the Temple to drove out the animals and money changers using an improvised whip. And yet this same preacher has attracted a large following. As St. John phrased it just a few verses before our Gospel reading, “…many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”
So it is that, as we read, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader among the Judeans, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. It might be a stretch to suggest he “believed in [Jesus’] name,” but he is definitely curious. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God” because how else could anyone work such miraculous signs?
Which brings us up to the more familiar part of the story…
I have to say, our Lord’s response to this inquiring Pharisee seems like a bit of a non sequitur: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” New Testament scholar Sherri Brown points out that throughout the Gospel according to Saint John, Jesus meets those who come to him but then pushes them, as if to say, Yes, Nicodemus, you know that I am sent from God, that I am a teacher, and that I work wonders, but if you want to see the Kingdom of God, if you want to truly get it, you have to be born again.
And Nicodemus, this perceptive religious leader, looks back at Jesus with a blank expression before muttering, Uh, what? How can someone be born again? Do you expect me to crawl back up into the womb? Surely, you can’t be serious. (Jesus is serious, and don’t call him Shirley.)
And no wonder Nicodemus is confused! Unlike those of us living in the 21st century, he hasn’t heard this phrase casually tossed about in religious discourse. But still, he shouldn’t be that confused. Sure, Christ’s wording is a little punny here (the Greek word, anothen, can mean again, anew, or from above), but come one, Nic! Get it from context!
There is, of course, another prominent interpretation of being born again– one less focused on the literal meaning of the text. I don’t doubt you’ve encountered it at some point in your life – maybe it was a street preacher at a sporting event holding up a sign or perhaps, scanning through different radio stations, you caught a few words from a Baptist pastor. Maybe, like me, you’ve been approached by an eager and well-meaning college student on a spring break mission trip, or like Suzanne, you may have been that student. Or maybe a beloved family member has asked you over dinner. “Have you been born again?”
It’s such a ubiquitous interpretation that, for a while, it was used to describe the entire Evangelical-with-a-capital-E voting block: “born-again Christians.” And yet, for how widespread this phrase is, it’s only been since the 1960s that it entered the mainstream of mainline Protestantism.
In this understanding, being “born again” means having a singular event in your life that you can point to, when you “accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” and “got saved,” a moment of inward decision. If you can’t identify it (and zealous born-again Christians will ask), then you might not be truly saved.
But this interpretation misses the point almost as much as Nicodemus. Our life in Christ isn’t summarized by a single event, a decision that we made to let Jesus in to our hearts. The Christian faith is a daily lived reality; it’s the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit making us more like Christ as Christ continues to reconcile us with our Heavenly Father. We are born anew from above, of water and the Holy Spirit, in these baptismal waters, but that is just the beginning. In that holy Sacrament, the very fabric of our being is changed forever.
Yes, the physical act of Baptism takes place only once, but the grace given to us in this Sacrament endures for the rest of our life – whether we received it as infants, as children, or as adults. And that grace gives us the strength to die daily to sin that, as Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
And this is not our own decision, a choice made of our own free will. No, this new birth from above is available because God elected to bless the entire world through Abraham, and here we are reborn into that ancient family. In these waters, we are united into the Body of Christ, the very one who is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai.
Even still, confronting this mystery, we might react like Nicodemus: “How can these things be?” Or, to use Luther’s famous question from the Catechism, “How can water do such great things?” It is possible only through the word of God and faith – and that faith is not the work of our own mental acuity but an active trust bestowed upon us by God’s grace. In these three things – the water, God’s word of sure promise, and God’s own gift of faith – the scant liquid in this little bowl becomes the “grace-filled water of life,” a means of grace, a Sacrament.
In this new birth of water and the Spirit, God is laying claim to us. God has known you from before creation and has called to you. God has sought you out, not to condemn you or punish you but to save you through Christ. Here, our old and sinful selves are put to death that the new creation, the person God always intended you to be, might be born.
So come, all you who would see wondrous signs!
If you have not yet answered the call of our Lord, come to him by night! After sunset, on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil, as we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, come be reborn into that new life!
If you were baptized but have wandered away, come! Come on that most holy night and remember the new birth granted to you in these saving waters! “Cling to this promise:…by water and the Holy Spirit, God gives you a new birth, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives you all your sins!”
If you are new to our community and would join us in membership, come! On that night as bright as day, renew with the covenant the Lord made with you through Baptism, and hear our affirmation that we will support and pray for you in your life in Christ!
Come, all! Prepare your hearts to celebrate with joy the Paschal Feast! Join with Nicodemus and all who come seeking the Lord, and remember your Baptism, when God claimed you as an adopted heir, a beloved child, and celebrate our birth into everlasting life!
The image of Nicodemus is courtesy of Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.